Ethnic Vietnamese feel they are being scapegoated on social media and in person as tensions rise over Cambodia-Vietnam border demarcation
Minh Sokdey, a 36-year-old construction worker in Phnom Penh, says he loves Cambodia. But he wishes his fellow citizens would understand that he did not owe allegiance to Vietnam.
“Some Khmers love me, and some hate me,” said Sokdey, who is a Battambang-born Cambodian of Vietnamese descent.
The past few weeks, he said, have been particularly hard, as controversy over the demarcation of the Vietnamese border has intensified.
“Strangers have scolded me, telling me that I’m stealing their land – these people want to create division in society,” he said, adding that he avoids fuelling racial prejudice by walking away from hate speech rather than confronting it.
“I speak Khmer perfectly, I’m literate in Khmer script, and I have a family book,” said Sokdey, referring to the document that serves as de facto proof of citizenship.
He added that he considers himself a patriotic Cambodian who happens to be of Vietnamese ancestry.
“I love Cambodia – if I didn’t, I would leave.”
As the situation along the border heats up – the Cambodian government has begun conducting unprecedented investigations into alleged land-grabbing from its stalwart ally to the east in recent weeks – the ruling and opposition parties alike have demonstrated rare unity in addressing border disputes with its more powerful neighbour.
But while a national consensus has been reached that the demarcation issue must be dealt with, analysts, politicians and citizens fear that Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority, which may be as large as 1 million by some estimates, is being unfairly scapegoated.
Cambodia National Rescue Party President Sam Rainsy, who in the past has been criticised for inflaming xenophobic sentiment for political purposes, told Post Weekend in a phone interview that xenophobia risked “polluting” the fight against territorial encroachment.
“We must not have any problems of human rights violations against anybody, especially the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, while we are fighting to defend our territory, because we want to show that our fight is pure, which is based on the law, and it is not based on racism or attacking anybody,” said Rainsy.
Independent analyst Ou Virak, founder of policy think tank the Future Forum, said he had “definitely” noticed an increase of anti-Vietnamese xenophobia.
“It doesn’t take much to have a negative impact on the ethnic Vietnamese, just because generally there’s a lot of animosity, a lot of racism, a lot of speculation and a lot of different theories,” he said, adding that he had seen a spike in xenophobic political rants on Khmer-language social media.
This week, a video emerged on social media of young men smashing Vietnamese headstones in a Kandal province graveyard.
The footage was accompanied with text calling for a mass deportation of Vietnamese.
When asked whether he believed Rainsy was sincerely concerned about the plight of ethnic Vietnamese, Virak said he was “very happy” to report a real change in the opposition leader’s position.
“I haven’t seen the same racist remarks that he used to make, and there has been a real change of the tone of Rainsy,” he said.
Virak added that he had “no doubt” that Vietnam, as well as Thailand, had been exploiting their comparatively powerful positions regionally to take Cambodian land.